The economic stimulus bill recently passed by Congress designates $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts, but that funding pales in comparison to the commitment to the arts during the Great Depression.
Under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, the federal government launched a series of artist-supportive initiatives, starting with the Public Works of Art Project in 1933. This six-month experiment funded 3,749 artists to produce thousands of paintings, murals, sculptures, prints, drawings and handicrafts at a cost of $1.3 million. Its success spawned other New Deal art programs, some lasting into the early 1940s.
Unlike the NEA, the Public Works of Art Project paid weekly wages directly to qualified artist “workers” whose pieces were then owned by the federal government. “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people!” said Harry Hopkins, Mr. Roosevelt’s relief administrator, of the artists.
Once completed, the artworks were displayed in public buildings to uplift a dispirited nation through portrayals of what project officials called “the American Scene.” These diverse representations of people, industry, cities and farmland were meant to reassure viewers of the country’s strength and purpose on its road to economic recovery.
During the 1960s, some of artworks made their way to the Smithsonian American Art Museum where 56 paintings from this collection are now on display. A response to the museum’s own funding crisis (“the exhibit began as a way to save money in [our] seriously eroded budget,” says director Elizabeth Broun), this timely showing of paintings coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Public Works of Art Project as well as the current economic meltdown — the worst since the Depression. It serves as a reminder of the creative gains that are possible when the federal government invests in its people.
By solely focusing on paintings created between 1933 and 1934, the exhibit offers a fresh look at New Deal art during its inception. Most of the canvases reflect regional expressions rather than the preachy Social Realism associated with later federal art programs overseen by the Works Progress Administration, the largest of Roosevelt’s relief agencies.
If you didn’t know these pleasant landscapes, cityscapes and portraits were paid for with federal dollars, you’d think they were merely a reaction among more conservative members of the American art community to the avant-garde modernism of the 1930s.
The government encouraged artists to depict local scenes in a recognizable way with few restrictions on subject matter or style. Californian Millard Sheets painted laundry hanging from a Los Angeles tenement while New Jersey artist Gerald Sargent Foster captured the billowing sails of racing yachts in Long Island Sound. New Yorker Alice Dinneen imagined a black panther in a jungle with the ripe exoticism of a Henri Rousseau while German-born Paul Kelpe pictured industry as a Bauhaus-inspired arrangement of geometric machinery.
Rather than showing signs of financial distress through bread lines and shantytowns, these paintings affirm American values of hard work and resourcefulness through optimistic images of urban and rural life. Skyscrapers, factories, railroads, mines and infrastructure projects are pictured to pay homage to the nation’s ingenuity, even during the Depression.
Ray Strong’s panoramic “Golden Gate Bridge” shows the great span still under construction. Arthur Cederquist’s snowy landscape of a Pennsylvania farm celebrates rural phone service and electrification with detailed depictions of utility poles. An unidentified artist’s scene of a New York street in Binghamton focuses on a newly built railroad underpass with a reverence reserved for civic monuments.
Helpful wall labels provide well researched information on the works and the artists, most of whom are unknown. One of the more recognizable names is Ilya Bolotowsky, a Russian-born painter who came to embrace hard-edged abstractions. His vivid interior of a New York barbershop, painted when he was 27, reveals an early affinity for bright colors.
Like Mr. Bolotowsky, about a fourth of the artists represented in the exhibit were first-generation Americans. Most of them were in their 20s and 30s when they created these paintings.
One of the successes of the New Deal art program was to help young artists launch their careers and get their work shown in public. Illinois-based Ivan Albright, represented in the exhibit with an obsessively detailed portrait of an elderly farmer’s wife, went on to create the painting for the 1945 film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
The Public Works of Art Project was also open to female, black and Asian artists, who were otherwise denied opportunities. Washington artist Julia Eckel used her New Deal salary to portray radio performers while New Yorker Earle Richardson used his to paint black field hands in the “Employment of Negroes in Agriculture” (sadly, the 22-year-old artist committed suicide a year later). Japanese-born Kenjiro Nomura depicted the farms around Seattle before being interned during World War II in a camp where he kept painting.
Given the democratic reach of the public art project, the quality of talent on display in the exhibit is surprising. One of the standouts is California artist Ross Dickinson whose appealing “Valley Farms” bears the stylized topography of a Grant Wood landscape.